WASHINGTON (CN) – A man captured one week ago in Libya pleaded not guilty on Thursday to charges over the 2012 attacks in Benghazi that caused the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The 46-year-old’s arrest comes more than a month into the trial of Ahmed Abu Khattalah, whom prosecutors accuse of orchestrating the Benghazi attacks.
At Khattalah’s trial in Washington on Wednesday, prosecutors presented phone records showing that al-Imam and Khattalah were in contact by phone 84 times on the night of the attack, Sept. 11, 2012.
Al-Imam made his first court appearance on Friday, just three days after his arrest in Libya.
During a detention hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson on Thursday morning, federal prosecutor Opher Shweiki said the government has witnesses who will place al-Imam at the U.S. diplomatic compound on the day of its attack.
“The strength of the case is strong,” Shweiki said.
Khattalah’s trial has included several witnesses, some of whom have received reward money from the U.S. government, who testified about having identified al-Imam in grainy surveillance video footage of the compound.
Shweiki said Thursday morning that al-Imam waived his Miranda rights, and that the suspect implicated himself when he spoke to investigators.
Calling for the court to keep al-Imam in custody until his trial, Shweiki said the suspect was intimately involved with those who orchestrated the attacks, including a commander of a violent extremist organization.
Defense attorney Mathew Peed argued meanwhile that the evidence against al-Imam appears weak, consisting only of video evidence showing him carrying items out of a building at the diplomatic compound the night of the attack.
Shweiki and others prosecuting Khattalah have said that materials taken from the diplomatic compound on Sept. 11, 2012, were used in a separate attack later that night on a nearby CIA annex. Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith with the U.S. Foreign Service were killed in the diplomatic compound attack, and two other Americans, CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, were killed in the annex later that day.
Peed, an attorney with the firm Clinton Brook & Peed, said the video evidence is hardly strong enough to warrant his client’s pretrial detention.
Calling conditions in Benghazi “chaotic” at the time, Peed said there is no evidence that al-Imam played a significant role in the attacks.
“There were hundreds of people looting the embassy at this time,” Peed said, giving a possible reason for his client’s identification in security footage.
Al-Imam, short and thin, walked slowly into court Thursday wearing an orange jumpsuit. He appeared nervous when he sat down at the table and unsure of where to put his hands. Settling on stretching his arms out in front of him on the table, Peed reached out to touch al-Imam’s left arm, telling him to relax.
Peed argued that, given his client’s physical condition, al-Imam should be confined to a halfway house with GPS monitoring pending trial. Because his client has arthritis, moves slowly, and is extremely thin, he wouldn’t pose a threat to anyone, Peed said.
Shweiki countered that al-Imam had violent proclivities and could continue to build relationships with other extremists to perpetrate further attacks against the U.S.
Judge Robinson agreed with the government that al-Imam poses a flight risk and a danger to the community, and ordered him to be detained pending trial.
Peed told the court he has seen very little of the evidence against his client, aside from the affidavit.
“That is the sole source of information that I have, other than speaking to my client,” he said.
Judge Robinson said there is no sealing order on the case, but the affidavit Peed describes is not publicly available on his client’s court docket.
Shweiki assured the court that he has met with Peed multiple times and given him evidence, including statements provided to the government by his client.
Al-Imam will appear in court again for a status conference before U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper, who is presiding over the Khattalah trial. A date for the conference has not yet been scheduled.